State Collaborative Working on Improving Relations Between Farms and Town Rules, Access to Fresh Food

The Recorder, January 26, 2017, by Richie Davis

Rather than allow a 416-page state plan released in December 2015 to rot on a shelf, a Greenfield-based collaborative has been working to have it seed a bold future for farming and food accessibility in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Food System Collaborative is working to promote, monitor and facilitate implementation of the plan, one that was written for and accepted by a state’s Food Policy Council, says collaborative Director Winton Pitcoff.

After getting organized, the collaborative, which was itself one of the recommendations of the plan, has focused its first year on two projects, as well as moving along legislative initiatives and policy objectives recommended in the report.

First, there’s trying to balance the potential conflict between farming and the autonomous town public health boards, which have authority over a vast array of issues, some of which can involve farming practices and may result in restrictive policies and regulations made in the absence of expertise. Those regulations, which can be adopted even without a public hearing, may vary from town to town, making it hard for farmers, who look for consistency, said Pitcoff.

“A lot of farmers work in different towns, and you can’t adapt to five to 10 towns if the farmers markets have different rules for refrigeration or requirements for plastic rather than wooden crates, or not being able to set things on the grass, instead saying you have to have tables. … That becomes burdensome.”

The collaborative has hired a mediator to help solve the tension, since some suburban health boards have adopted bans restricting farming. Also there are plans to issue a report in coming weeks to recommend how to help reconcile the interests of public health and farm viability, as well as offering health boards ways of resolving farm-related issues without simply banning some practices.

‘Healthy Incentives’

The collaborative is also working to encourage a new four-year “Healthy Incentives” program that uses a $3.4 million federal grant to double SNAP benefits for recipients to buy fruits at vegetables at farmers markets, farm stands, CSAs, and mobile markets to encourage healthier eating habits. The competitive grant award was based on pilot programs like one offered by Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture.

Working to implement goals that aren’t being led by other groups, the collaborative plans to promote a package of farm legislation that passed the state Senate last year, including recommendations from the state plan. The bills could loosen some restrictions on sale of raw milk, allow local brewers and distillers to sell their products at farmers markets, allow local farm products to be sold at state parks and address other farm-related issues.

To help drive local food production, the bill eases regulatory restrictions that could inhibit agricultural modernization, by establishing commissions to assess the management of state protected farmland and the agricultural plumbing code. Other changes include extending the license durations for foresting and timber harvesting and integrating rain sensors into the state building code.

Other bills to be filed, said Pitcoff, could address how farmland is valued in the estate tax law, expanding the dairy farming tax credit, limiting liability for farms that donate food and expanding state tax credits for donations to include smaller farms, reducing food waste and other issues.

“There’s a lot of good food system work being done in Massachusetts,” said Pitcoff. “In some sectors, there’s good connective tissue that keeps people working together.”

Working with organizations like CISA, Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, American Farmland Trust and the Franklin CDC, the collaborative is trying to play the role as a “central hub” to with those and other sectors trying to ensure food security, investment, consumer awareness, tax policy and more.

“We’re trying to work across the food system,” said collaborative Co-Chair Cris Coffin of Bernardston, in addressing food waste, for example, from the perspective of regulatory and policy challenges. “It’s not just about farming and farmers; it’s about food business and their needs and about consumers and their actions and their needs as well.”

In regard to a challenge like helping dairy farmers, with groups already working like the Mass. Dairy Farm Association of Farm Bureau, she said, “I think our role is to support and reinforce those efforts.”

Also, said Coffin, “The plan was fairly vague in some areas and just said, ‘We need to do more’” in providing technical assistance for farms and food businesses, for example. “Part of what the collaborative wanted to do is pull together around people who think about this, to work through what those specific needs are and move forward together.”

Also, regarding issues like the need for more poultry processing, Coffin said, “It’s organizing the conversations. We don’t know what the problem is: whether there’s a regulatory bottleneck or there’s not enough production to meet the needs of a potential processor. Our effort is aimed at moving things forward.”

On the Web: